Navigating Norway; the Great Circle Route from Oslo to Sand and back

I landed in Oslo on a fine, sunny September day.  My brother had flown in a few days before me and met me at the airport.  We were in Norway specifically to visit relatives on my father’s side who live in a small town on the west coast.  In addition to visiting relatives, we both wanted to see the sights of Oslo, so we decided to drive the approximately 250 miles.  A rental car served our purpose of travel to the west coast, plus my brother had an agenda.  He had chosen our driving route with stavkirkes (stave churches) in mind.  We would pass at least five stavkirkes if we drove Highway 40 from Kongsberg to Geilo, then Hwy 7 westbound to Kinsarvik, and eventually passing through Røldal.  The roads in western Norway are often single lane, with rough unlit tunnels, many requiring ferry crossings of the fjords.  It can be slow going, but it is also quite beautiful. 

            For my first day in Oslo we toured the Viking museum on Bygdøy, the new Oslo Opera House and waterfront, and Frogner Park.  We spent the night at the Lysebu Hotel in the Holmenkollen ski area above Oslo.  The dinner at the Lysebu Hotel was truly stellar.

Oslo's Opera House

 

            Leaving Oslo early the next day, we drove southwest on E134 towards Kongsberg, where we picked up Highway 40 northbound.  The first stave church on our route was Flesberg stavkirke, built around 1200 AD.  The name for these old medieval churches comes from the Norwegian word for load-bearing posts, stav.  They were built of post and beam construction, the interiors often elaborately decorated with carvings and paintings.  Only 29 of these churches remain standing, all but one in Norway.  Unfortunately, as would be the case with four out of the five stavkirke we visited, it was closed.  Apparently the tourist season ended with the month of August. We were able to walk around the exterior of the churches, but were unable to tour the interiors.

Flesberg Stavkirke

 

              We left Flesberg heading north, still following Highway 40.  The signs on the side of the road warned (promised? I wanted to see one) of moose crossings, but the only animal we saw was a deer.  Our next stop was the stavkirke in Rollag, originally built in the second half of the 12th century, then rebuilt around 1660 into a cross church.  It was nice to take a break from driving by strolling the church grounds.  We saw no one at the first two churches.

Rollag Stavkirke

            Our third church along Highway 40 was the Nore stavkirke.  Again we were only able to walk around the exterior, which was a disappointment.  The interior of the 1200 AD church is said to be covered in murals.  Several other tourists were wandering the grounds as well.  The weather was cool and a light rain had started to fall. 

Nore Stavkirke

Interior beams, Nore Stavkirke (taken through the window). Photo Credit: Nick Nielsen

             Continuing our pilgrimage northward, we pulled off the main road near Uvdal.  The Uvdal stavkirke, built just after 1158, was the largest church that we had seen so far.  We were the only people in the area, a beautiful still and verdant hillside.  The interior is richly decorated, or so we read.  It was a little frustrating to be on the site of these churches and unable to see the painting and carving on the interiors.  I promised my brother that some day we would have to drive this same route, but in July or August instead of September.

Uvdal Stavkirke

On the hillside behind the stavkirke.

             We continued our drive northward to Geilo, considering where to stop for the night.  We had agreed to “wing it” when it came to our overnight stop.  Geilo seemed like a good place to stop (a winter ski area), but upon inquiring at the main hotel in town, we were told it was sold out due to a convention.  So we continued our drive now westbound on Highway 7.

Hardangervidda mountain plateau

             The surrounding countryside started to change as we drove across the Hardangervidda mountain plateau.  It is Europe’s largest mountain plateau, with no trees, covered by rocks and pools of water.  Signs by the roadside advertised goat cheese, and lonely looking structures used by the cross country skiers dotted the landscape.  On the west side of the plateau we passed Voringfossen waterfalls, and descended into Eidfjord. 

            We stopped in Eidfjord to call ahead to the Utne Hotel.  Yes, they had rooms available and would be open for our late arrival.  We continued west towards Kinsarvik, where we had planned to take the ferry across Sørfjord to Utne.  At the last minute we had to change our plans due to a road closure.  A landslide had taken out the small road that runs along the rugged shoreline.  This is not an uncommon occurrence, but required an extra ferry ride.  We were rerouted via a ferry to Bruravik, continued on Highway 7, and then another ferry from Kvanndal which dropped us literally at the front door of the Utne Hotel.  We had spent 12 hours on the road traveling from Oslo to Utne.

Utne Hotel

The moon on the fjord.

            The Utne Hotel, the oldest continuous operating hotel in Norway, opened in 1722 and since then has seen a number of “reverent extensions and refurbishments to the building. The most recent was in the winter of 2004/2005 when the hotel was totally restored. This project was completed in cooperation with the Directorate of Cultural Heritage, in order to preserve the unique, historical features of the hotel” (from the Utne Hotel website, http://www.dehistoriske.com/hotel/utne-hotel).  The hotel was lovely, comfortable and set a very nice table for breakfast, a personal priority.

The Utne Hotel breakfast room. Photo Credit: Nick Nielsen

            The following day we departed Utne southbound on Highway 550, following the fjord towards Odda.  It was a very scenic drive with the fjord and orchards on our left and the mountains on our right.  We could see the Folgefonna glacier at times, and we passed many waterfalls.  We picked up Highway 13 south of Odda and continued towards Røldal.

Looking across the fjord. The small roads run right along the water, squeezed between the fjord and the mountains.

             Luck was on our side in Røldal.  As we approached the Røldal stavkirke, the door opened and the caretaker emerged.  He was expecting a group of tourists for a private showing, and while he waited for their arrival he agreed to show us the interior.  The stavkirke was built sometime in the 12th century, and decorated in the 16th century.  The Røldal stavkirke’s interior is beautifully painted.  The caretaker told us that the medieval crucifix above the altarpiece was said to have healing powers, and sick people made pilgrimages to the church to be held up to touch the cross.  It was a wonderful experience to tour the church with someone who could tell us details and stories about the church and its history.

Røldal Stavkirke

Røldal interior

The healing crucifix inside the Røldal stavkirke.

            Leaving Røldal, we continued on Highway 13.  The road becomes narrow and winds along fjords and lakes.  It was a beautiful drive and we stopped many times for photographs.  At this writing, two of the  West Norwegian Fjords – Geirangerfjord and Naerøyford – are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Somewhere along the road between Roldal and Sand.

            Eventually we turned off 13 and onto 46, the even smaller road into Sand.  We had arrived.

Sand, Norway

 We spent 5 nights in Sand, visiting relatives, harvesting our aunt’s plums and apples, and cleaning up her garden in preparation for winter.

Harvesting plums.

In my aunt's garden.

 

            It was a pleasant respite from driving, and infinitely less expensive than staying in hotels.  Visiting relatives in Norway always includes invitations for dinner, and many afternoon gatherings involving cake and coffee.  When the time came for us to depart, accompanied by our cousin Marta, we left Sand on 46 then picked up Highway 13 southbound towards Nesvik.  There we crossed the fjord on the Hjelmelandsvagen ferry.  We continued southbound on 13, winding through mountains and countryside, following it to Tau.  In Tau we boarded another ferry and spent forty-five minutes enroute to Stavanger, approaching the city in the fog with a light rain.

Driving onto the ferry to Hjelmeland

My cousin Marta and my brother on the ferry to Stavanger.

             In Stavanger our cousin Marta left us and we drove E39 until we could leave the main road and catch Highway 44, also known as the North Sea Highway.  Our intention was to drive the smallest road closest to the sea, hoping for the best scenery and views.  The plan was a good one.  It was an enjoyable and scenic drive, winding through small towns, on narrow rocky roads with dark tunnels, always skirting the North Sea.  We followed the coastline south and eastbound, stopping where we could to enjoy the views.  We found a Viking graveyard of sorts near the road and hopped boulder to boulder out to the water.  It was very windy on the southernmost tip of Norway. 

Highway 44 south of Stavanger.

The sign at the Viking grave site.

 

SCENES ALONG HIGHWAY 44 BETWEEN STAVANGER AND KRISTIANSAND

            Eventually Hwy 44 joined E39, and we continued eastbound through Kristiansand.  In Kristiansand we took E18 towards Lillesand.  Anytime we saw a smaller road, we would take it just to see what we could find.  We stumbled upon some of the most beautiful areas on the small roads, 401 & 420, between Kristiansand and Lillesand. 

A cove along the small road between Kristiansand and Lillesand.

            We had decided upon Lillesand as an overnight stop because the Hotel Norge is in Lillesand.  A copy of De Historiske (www.dehistoriske.com) was our hotel guide, from which we chose our overnight stops, staying in historic properties if possible.  At times, we would modify our route in order to stay at a particular hotel.  From this source we chose the Hotel Norge (www.hotelnorge.no).  What a pleasant surprise for us that the small town of Lillesand was so beautiful.  The next day dawned clear and sunny, and we walked around the town before taking to the road again with Oslo as our destination. 

The Hotel Norge

Lillesand, Norway.

 

            It was our last full day in Norway, and we had to drive from Lillesand to Oslo.  We opted for the quickest route, the E18.  Not being particularly early risers, at highway speeds we made it into Oslo a few hours before sunset, in time for one last walk around Bygdøy and downtown.  For our last evening in Norway we stopped at Frogner Park as the sun was setting.  It was beautiful, and a fitting end to our trip.  We stayed that night in a hotel east of Oslo, our departure set for the next day.  Including our stops and detours for scenic roads, it took us two full days to drive from Oslo to Sand, and two full days to drive back.

Frogner Park at sunset.

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